Beauties and the Beast? Understanding and Subverting the Male Gaze through Soju Advertisements

It’s not often that I laugh at soju advertisements.

Flying in the face of decades-old traditions that they should feature demure and virginal-looking women though, this one with singer Baek Ji-young (백지영) for Yipsejoo (잎새주) literally had me in tears.

Indeed, if it’s not a deliberate satire, then it at least prompted me to reexamine those traditions, making me realize just how ridiculous many are. And being exclusively designed for a “male gaze” too, they also prove to be a very good guide to it, giving pointers to the ways in which a wide range of advertisements seem to be based on the assumption that their audience are entirely heterosexual men, especially by focusing on and sexualizing women’s bodies.

Even when the products are aimed at women.

But first, the humor of this one, which is on several levels. First there is the caption, which reads “In autumn, rather than your lips (kiss), please give me some strong-tasting Yipsejoo!,” (가을, 입술보다 진한 잎술주세요!), and is a pun based on the fact that yibsool (입술), or lips, sounds very similar to yipsool (잎술), shorthand for Yipsejoo.

And as an added inside-joke for fans, a popular song on Baek Ji-young’s 7th album Sensibility, released five months before she was hired by Yipsejoo’s parent company Bohae (보해양조), even had the name Give Me Your Lips (입술을 주고) too.

But context is everything.

Previously on a fast track to stardom, Baek Ji-young was the innocent victim of a sex-scandal in 2000, and had to fight hard against Korea’s double-standards in order to revive her career. But while this severely limited her advertising options, perhaps one silver lining was the ability to disregard the high moral standards Koreans usually apply to their celebrities (especially women), and indeed it is very difficult to imagine anyone else appearing in advertisements like those she has so far for Yipsejoo.

For instance, recall that when she was chosen in an online poll to model for Yipsejoo in March last year, I remarked that her first advertisement for the company below was:

…not to put too fine a point on it, literally the sluttiest soju ad I’ve ever seen….

With apologies for sounding crass (then), but I still can’t think of a better way to describe it:

I also discussed the fact that while she did mention how happy she was to have been chosen to appear in soju advertisements like top stars Lee Hyori and Song Hye-gyo, one still sensed that they wouldn’t have consented to appearing bra-less and with an open zipper in them, which smacked of desperation. Judging by the soju advertisements that emerged that summer however, I was quite wrong, but then I’d already concluded of Beak Ji-young that:

however unfair or unwarranted, she’ll always be stuck with her promiscuous image, so she may as well play into it.

Still, I didn’t realize that she would take my advice quite so literally!

To be precise, I laughed so hard when I saw the opening image because I thought she looked like a prostitute who’d been plying her trade for rather too long now, and which were quite a contrast to, say, these earlier ones for Yipsejoo featuring Jeong Ryeo-won (정려원), for whom her evening of drinking soju with her male partner will be her first time in more ways than one:

But this post is not about that shift, which I’ve more than adequately covered elsewhere, although I do want to stress 2 things about it here before moving on: that however impressed I was by the changes when I first noticed them back in 2007, it was still extremely naive of me to have ever equated it with (female) sexual liberation(!); and that while an empirical study would undoubtedly demonstrate an increase in soju advertisements with – in the sociological framework that I’ll be using below – “body display” – in recent years, there is by no means an linear progression of racier advertisements over time.

Even just Yipseejo itself for instance, makes both forms of advertisements with the same models, and/or seems to alternate which ones it primarily makes with them, such as traditional, virginal ones with Jeong Ryeo-won and Han Ji-min (한지민) in 2006 and 2008 respectively, but then racier ones with Kim Ok-bin in 2007 and Baek Ji-young in 2009.

Regardless, both types are still designed for the male gaze. In the interests of full disclosure however, I have never studied that formally, and so here I shall be quoting liberally from the excellent A Web Essay on the Male Gaze, Fashion Advertising, and the Pose, part of the Semiotics and Advertising Web Site of the University of Vermont, and I also highly recommend this post by Michael Hurt at the Scribblings of the Metropolitician after that for an analysis of Korean women’s body images using that perspective.

But it does dovetail nicely with the work done by the late sociologist Erving Goffman in his 1979 work Gender Advertisements, still very much the framework by which sociologists study how gender roles are perpetuated in advertising (and indeed referred to repeatedly in A Web Essay). In earlier posts, I’ve already analyzed Korean advertisements using one motif of that: “Relative Size”, or how and why it is extremely rare to see women taller than men in advertisements despite being women being taller than men in 1 out of 6 randomly matched pairs. It’s high time to start using others, beginning with “Ritualization of Subordination”:

Under this broad category, Goffman actually described a great number of symbolic ways in which the women’s behavior in advertisements displays the subordination of females to males, many of which involve women acting like children. Why this is more problematic than it may sound is because:

Given the subordinated and indulged position of children in regard to adults, it would appear that to present oneself in puckish styling is to encourage the corresponding treatment. How much of this guise is found in real life is an open question; but found it is in advertisements. (Goffman, p. 48)

And indeed Korean society strongly encourages grown women to act like children, so it is probably not surprising to hear that in Korean adolescent girl’s magazines for instance, Korean female models are portrayed in such ways much more often than Western ones. From Gender Role Stereotypes Depicted by Western and Korean Advertising Models in Korean Adolescent Girls’ Magazines by Nam, Kyoungtae., Lee, Guiohk. and Hwang, Jang-Sun (2007):

Korean women were more likely to be portrayed in smiling, pouting and childlike or cute expressions than Western women. This result is similar to the findings of [this 1999 study] in which many Japanese girls in magazine advertising were portrayed as happy, playful and childlike. Understanding that gender displays in advertising reflect cultural orientation in a society, these findings indicate that in Korea and Japan, cuteness is an important virtue for women. (p. 18)

And yet to complain about those advertisements with Yoo In-young (유인영) and Shin Min-a (신민아) above, especially when they’re aimed at men, might still seem a little excessive. But then consider the following images from A Web Essay, which poses the questions “What do they suggest to you about these men? Do they seem silly?”

“What about these images?”

And as you probably expected:

Most viewers find the images of the men odd or laughable. But the images of the women seem charming and attractive…Why should it seem funny to see a picture of adult men striking a pose when the same pose seems normal or charming to us in pictures of adult women?

Not childlike per se, but as the next part points out, such expressions are often done with a head cant, for instance by Chae Yeon (채연) and Han Hyo-Joo (한효주) below:

The effect of the head cant is to lower the level of the head:

“…relative to that of others, including, indirectly, the viewer of the picture. The resulting configuration can be read as an acceptance of subordination, and expression of ingratiation, submissiveness, and appeasement.” (Goffman, p. 46)

And A Web Essay adds that it is often combined with putting a finger in the mouth or otherwise touching the face in a childlike way, and so common in advertising as to be barely noticed:

The difference between those and the soju advertisements however, is that they’re all from women’s magazines and presumably aimed at women, and so what is actually going on in those is:

…not that the viewer is looking at a woman who is actually subordinate or childish. Rather, the models are posed so as to show that they know that they are being looked at — belying the otherwise childlike pose — and they are controlling or mastering this act of being looked at. The childish, submissive postures are represented as strategic, as a sign of control of the gaze.

This mastery and control over the gaze might explain why the highly accomplished and wealthy women you see above would strike submissive, deferential poses for the camera that no accomplished man would strike. For in so doing:

…[they are] not at all signaling to others that [they are] actually subordinate; on the contrary, [they are] showing that [they], too, can be successful in this arena, the arena where the goal is to attract and control the power of the gaze by striking a subordinate pose. And were this an occasional event, if we regularly saw images of women that were of a different sort, the effect might be innocuous.

The problem is, however, that most women make less money and have less power than most men, and the message that goes out to women without power is that to get some, you need to gain control of a male view of women — which means to get power through male power, rather than on your own.

This is where the theory of the male gaze becomes important…

A Web Essay also briefly mentions women’s typical advertising poses in much the same vein. But I think that that’s a little misguided, as a distinction needs to be made between those that are sexually appealing to heterosexual men and others, the basic physiology of sexual reproduction ensuring that men will almost always look ridiculous in the former. Hilariously demonstrated by these pictures from English Russia for instance:

See Sociological Images for a wider discussion of those. Of course, by no means are women (or men) always placed in sexually appealing poses in advertisements, but for some reason women in particular frequently are placed in completely bizarre, often comical ones instead. Goffman notes of them that:

The note of unseriousness struck by a childlike guise is struck by another styling of the self, this one perhaps entirely restricted to advertisements, namely, the use of the entire body as a playful gesticulative device, a sort of body clowning. (Goffman p. 50)

With the possible exception of that with Kim Ok-bin, admittedly these following examples from soju advertisements can not really be described as “childlike.” But however natural they may appear though (again because of our frequent exposure to them), in fact some are extremely awkward to perform: just try them and see!

Starting with Kim Ah-joong (김아중) and Song Hye-gyo (송혜교):

Then Chae Yeon and Kim Ok-bin:

And finally Shin Min-a and Lee Hyori (이효리):

Those with Chae Yeon, Kim Ok-bin, and particularly Shin Min-a also display the “bashful knee bend,” which women frequently but men only infrequently are posed in a display of. Whatever else, it:

…can be read as a forgoing of full effort to be prepared and on the ready in the current social situation, for the position adds a moment to any effort to fight or flee. Once again one finds a posture that seems to presuppose the goodwill of anyone in the surround who could offer harm. (Goffman, p. 45)

But I’ll wisely move on to the second and last motif for this post, that of Licensed Withdrawal.” In the words of Images of Women in Advertising:

[One] way in which women are disempowered is by displaying them as withdrawn from active participation in the social scene and therefore dependent on others.  This involvement with some inner emotional processing, whether anxiety, ecstasy or introspection, can be symbolized by turning the face away, looking dreamy and introverted, or by covering the face, particularly the mouth, with the hands….

….Rather than being portrayed as active, powerful and in charge, females are commonly shown in this licensed withdrawal mode, removed into internal involvements, overcome with emotions, or symbolically silenced with hand over the mouth….

….In another variation, females are frequently shown withdrawn inwards into some dreamy introverted state;  they pose, become things for others to gaze at and desire.  Males will stereotypically be shown active, engaged, and in charge of the situation.  They are not so much objects for others’ to gaze at, as actors with occupations and professions….

But I’d never given it much thought until I saw this composite of four soju advertisements with Jang Yun-jeong (장윤정), which I also laughed out loud at. What on Earth is she looking at?

More examples with Kim Tae-hee (김태희), and Ku Hye-sun (구혜선):

And to which can be added Han Hyo-joo’s from earlier. Arguably Ku Hye-sun is merely lost in her enjoyment of her drink though, and in that sense the advertisement could even be used to appeal to women(?). But then with the possible exception of the second one of Baek Ji-young’s, no advertisement featured here is particularly objectionable in itself; rather, this post has been about noting recurring features of soju advertisements that – if I may be so presumptuous – now that you’re more aware of, are likely to see across the entire Korean (and Western) media.

It is the pervasiveness of these features that is objectionable, and so rarely countered by alternative images of women.

But on that note, I should point out that I notice and pay attention to soju advertisements with skin just as much as the next guy; actually probably more so (call it an occupational hazard). Still, based on the opinions of the men and women in my classes at least, this one with Song Hye-gyo has the greatest universal appeal, although that is probably simply because of her attractiveness:

And after writing this post, in fact this one with Kim Yoon-ah (김윤아; not the skater) of the rock band Jaurim (자우림) is my favorite. For while I acknowledge that it’s a rather unflattering shot of her (she’s much prettier on the right), it’s the only one I’ve seen in which the woman depicted is actually doing something of her own accord and enjoying herself, rather than waiting to be seduced by a man. Baek Ji-young’s does come close of course, but then it’s even more unflattering, and all she is doing is drinking!

Finally, while it’s technically out of place, I would be remiss in not providing the one which, well, literally had my female students squealing in delight when they saw it. Featuring Kang Dong-won (강동원) for Bom Bom (봄봄; “Spring Spring”), that will be music to the ears of manufacturer Daesun (대선주조), creators of one of the first ever soju brands aimed at women:

See here for more information on the consequences of that for soju advertisements so far; given all the above, it is perhaps no surprise that most soju advertisers still can’t restrain themselves from using womens’ bodies!

(Soju advertisement sources: Shootar.net, or directly from manufacturers’ websites)

Share

24 thoughts on “Beauties and the Beast? Understanding and Subverting the Male Gaze through Soju Advertisements

  1. Wow… Another well researched, very interesting post. Congrats.

    Where do you find all these posters? I live in Daegu and it’s simply 참 town. There are no other sojus on the shelves, and no other posters on the streets. It’s 참 or sobriety. (Hey, that would make a decent advertising slogan…)

  2. The photos of the men posing as females are so funny!!! It amazes me how WELL Asian guys pull off being/acting/looking girly.

    I always found soju ads odd. They’re one of the cheapest forms of popular alcohol readily available (like beer) yet the advertising is so prestigious/elegant/classy/competitive. Only the most glamourous and successful can model for it – it’s a badge of honour and status in Korean entertainment. And soju is a drink all classes reach out for – from business dinners to uni students and the recently bankrupt/stressed out. That’s what I get from watching (minimal) Korean dramas.

    See if I think of a typical American beer ad, I think tacky with lots of skin. Although “classier” beers have not-so-tacky ads where the beer itself is presented nicely. In NZ it’s more of the hard-working, gritty, male, blue-collar image earning a cold beer after a long day for the big rugby match or pub. The “Yeah right” Tui billboard ads are also quite well done; sometimes they reflect on NZ current events.

    And let the East/West culture divisions begin…..

    • Hmmm…for all the virtual ink I’ve spilled on them, have to admit that I’ve never really thought about why soju ads are the way they are until I read your comment! Probably it’s just a reflection of Korean advertising’s over-reliance on celebrity endorsements as a whole though, which Bruce Haines, currently head of Korea’s largest ad agency Cheil Worldwide (제일기획), said makes it degenerate to simply “beautiful people holding a bottle.”

      Haven’t written on Korean beer advertising for a good year or so now: will have to refresh my memory and maybe cover that next. But although I’ve been away from NZ for 10 years now, I remember it intimately, and completely agree with your assessment above (I very much doubt it’s changed much). In fact, it’s that sort of thing drove me out, just being yet another aspect of NZ’s all-pervasive blokey culture. This *cough* classic in particular:

      I know, I know, complaining about it sounds a little excessive. But seriously, that look at 0:49 that says “When I grow up, I want to be just like you!” still has me cringing…!

      • Unfortunately, a soju to a Korean is like a vodka to a Russian.

        Isn’t beer in Korea endorsed by all the boy bands?? I was surprised at the length they go to advertise beer….but I think it pays off; the storyline was actually quite good. I enjoyed watching it. So *~glamourous~*

        Part 1

        Part 2

        I think NZ is slowly losing the Kiwi bloke culture. Slowly. We don’t take it too seriously. It’s all a bit tongue-in-cheek. I mean there MUST be a reason why NZ remains to have one of the better rankings when it comes to gender equality. And I feel that. Korea on the other hand…I think you know a lot more about this. Haha.

        Despite it all, I love Korean advertising. Especially at how elegant, fresh & refined it is. It’s SO engrossed in its own world and they really BELIEVE in it. Top notch.

        • Regarding the NZ bloke culture, I’m sure NZ would indeed have improved in that regard in the 10 years since I’ve lived there. And for sure, a lot of it’s tongue-in-cheek too, and I actually miss that sort of thing sometimes. But to be clear, it drove me out not because of its impact on gender equality there, but more for what it means being a guy there…seriously, if you’re not interested in rugby or cricket, and don’t drink beer etc. etc, then a lot of Kiwis wouldn’t even consider you one.

          • Sometimes it is also like that here in Aust, though it generally depends on who you hang out with. “Traditional Aussie Blokes” are all about beer, sport and mateship, but that is on the decline thankfully. As a general rule the higher socio economic status areas are not so blokey. But that can bring about a different set of issues.

            • Yeah, and the same in NZ, but unfortunately size matters: with only 4.4 million people now (Aus: 22.2 million) there just didn’t seem to be the critical mass to challenge the all-pervasive blokey culture.

              But to be fair it may have changed a lot in 10 years. And thank God for the internet for when I do go back!

              • An interesting point, the critical mass of non blokey guys would be much harder to achieve with such a low population.

                A large % of the kiwi population has even migrated here to steal our wimmins and bludge off our welfare system. The ones who are left, depending on your point of view, are either the smart ones or the dopey ones. It still amazes me sometimes when I think that there are nearly as many people here in Sydney as there are in the whole of NZ.

                Yeah, there is some truth to us thinking of our NZ neighbours as our somewhat quaint and backwards country cousins! Who may be a bit too friendly with the dominant form of life over there… just had to get that in, it’s obligatory.

                The interweb is a nearly endless source of entertainment and information, though not always of good quality of either. As long as you have a fast connection, life is much better!

  3. Hiya!

    This is a great post. I don’t drink soju but I’ve certainly learned (slowly, painfully) over the past 10 years that I do ‘get on’ better in Korea (in my general interactions in society as well as in my relationships with my Korean peers and superiors) if I act somewhat demure and coy. The more uncertain I act – the more I am liked and listened to, although I’m sure this has to do with many things and not only gender relations/expectations.

    Anyway! I did have a few thoughts as I read this post and the first was that the photo of the men (the first one, from A Web Essay) does look a bit silly but I think if those men were Korean it would look much more natural. I can totally imagine two Korean guys with their arms around each other, or a Korean guy wearing a Ponds’ nose strip. It would look a *little* odd, I admit – but not too far removed from what *I* would consider to be standard Asian metrosexuality. ^^

    Another thing I thought of was relation to the women’s gaze (cast down; away; or in an introspective state) and I wondered how much of that indirect gazing is appealing in Korea because of the meaning (usually negative) that direct stares can have? Making direct eye contact is much more accepted and expected in North America than it is in Korea, for example. I’m sure it is an almost universal rule in advertising but I’m wondering if part of the reason averted gazes and sideways looks are so prevalent here is because of the effects that the *opposite* eye behaviour would have? In many countries a direct stare would be bold and confident (would it not be?) but I’m pretty sure that in Korea a direct stare is more aggressive and sexual (the photo of Beak Ji-young as a case in point here).

    Just some thoughts. Again – awesome writing, as always!

    Cheers.

    • Thanks. Some very good points you raise, and indeed the journal article I quote Gender Role Stereotypes Depicted by Western and Korean Advertising Models in Korean Adolescent Girls’ Magazines by Nam, Kyoungtae., Lee, Guiohk. and Hwang, Jang-Sun (2007) applied the same typology to men in the magazines and found that Korean men were:

      …more likely than Western men to be associated with many female stereotypical behaviors such as self-touching, canting postures, smiling, and childlike and cute expressions. This might indicate that in contemporary society men are not immune to commercial and sexual objectification and this phenomenon was more evident in Korean advertising.

      That was from pp.18-19, and there’s a little more on pp. 13-14 if you’re interested. I would go into all that more detail here, but you’ve gone and given me a great idea for a post now, so I’ll save it for then!^^

  4. Off-topic questions:

    1. Comparing comments on Korean-language entertainment news websites with US-based ones, it seems that Koreans are, overall, less aware of photoshopping. They know it happens, but they still rave over distorted images of entertainers whereas US commenters sneer at whittled waists and airbrushed faces. I wonder why this is. A lot of US websites and magazines publish candid streets shots of entertainers in casual clothes, messy hair, and no makeup, so it’s easy to compare. One almost never sees images of Korean entertainers au natural. Is this because most Korean entertainers are like Victoria Beckham, who hides behind large, dark sunglasses on the rare occasion she steps out without makeup? I also wonder if the Korean MSM is reluctant to publish unflattering photos because of ties with producers.

    2. How has more extreme photoshopping changed Korean men’s and women’s beauty ideals? Fifteen years ago, one never saw photos of Korean women with impossibly long legs, rounded booties, or large busts, so Korean women wouldn’t have aspired to those features and Korean men wouldn’t have sought them. I’m thinking of an idea I read in a book about evolution and sexuality. The book noted that in Darwin’s time, men were not routinely exposed to images of young, sexy women, so they were content with their wives. It’s not just the increase in sexually explicit content in the media but the physical distortions of photo editing. The Ralph Lauren ad was ridiculous. The woman looked hideously skeletal, even by high fashion standards. There seems to be a growing backlash against photoshopped imaged in the West. Is there one in Korea?

    I know you’ve dealt with the themes in my questions time and time again, but I don’t recall if you’ve devoted a post specifically to the questions raised.

  5. Pingback: uberVU - social comments

  6. I really liked this post, especially for the insight it gives into the presentation of gender through the media. This kind of deconstruction of the image is quite hard to find, and almost impossible with regards to Korea and written in English. Great work.

    Was wondering what you thought about the differences between messages presented through English and through Korean media in Korea? I was just having a look at Yonhap News in Korean, switched to the English version and noticed that the design and content of the sites are different. I know it’s a bit of a tangent to the normal deconstruction of the visual form within the gender context that you normally like, but was I was wondering whether you have noticed any similar phenomena?

    It would seem that not just gender is being presented in different ways, but also the presentation of the English-speaking community and the Korean one is different too. Would you agree?

  7. Great article. I found those images of men mimicking female poses not only a good laugh but though provoking. It made me wonder, what would happen if you switched the some elements around again. What if you kept the busty, scarcely clad, s-line models but posed them in much more assertive/semi masculine ways. Would that look just as odd? Have you seen anything like this done already? Maybe this will be my next photography project…

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/comatosed/4225779868/

    • Thanks, and I haven’t unfortunately (will be very interested in that project if you do follow it up). Whether or not we would consider it odd though, depends on what you mean by “more assertive/semi masculine ways” exactly, because although some poses on women heterosexual men (and lesbian women) are always going to like for physiological and/or sexual reasons as discussed in this post and the links, many many others we only think of “feminine” we only think of as such because we’re so used to seeing them on women in the media rather than on men, when in fact in real life you find them just as readily on both; If you haven’t already read it, I discuss that in my most recent post if you’re interested.

      Which I guess is a roundabout way of saying (am on 2nd Black Russian as I type this sorry) that you and I both already know that women acting more assertively etc. can be quite the turn-on, but nevertheless its the submissive and passive poses and so on that get emphasized in print ads especially (a little less in commercials). And when you come across empirical, quantitative research that demonstrates that, it’s difficult not to conclude that the ad industry has a vested interest in discouraging assertive portrayals as women, for whatever reasons.

      Anyway, what I would most like to see in Korea is a line of advertisements with things like this, and which might provide a starting point for your own photography project.

      Sorry if that was all a bit incoherent: am on 3rd Black Russian now (hic)!

  8. Pingback: - Seoul Gyopo Guide

  9. Pingback: SEOUL Weekly — March 14, 2011 Issue No. 519

  10. So I was kinda right with you all the way through, especially in pointing out the inequivalency used in A Web Essay, right up until I got got to the diptych of Kim Yoon-Ah. Her character is much better seen with the life in her, playing her guitar, right up until you get to the hands which are posed to the point that it looks like she maybe doesn’t even know how to hold one. Which is supremely disingenuous on the part of the editorial approach, seeing as she’s the friggin lead singer and guitarist for the band. The second shot in comparison rings dead as it’s missing more of who she is.

    I’m still struggling with this concept of how to describe or identify this idea of the male gaze. It’s almost as though it’s presented as an infection of the male mind. But where the issue sits is quite different from that. The best thing I can think of so far is to encourage other guys, without being a dick about it, to express their connection to their own attraction to a whole and useful person rather than a decorative doll. It seems to me the best way to crack the commercial perception of what it is that men find attractive.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s